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The Italian Comedy

The Italian Comedy

by Pierre Louis Duchartre

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Illustrated history of the beginnings, growth and influence of the commedia dell’ arte. Describes improvisations, staging, marks, scenarios, acting troupes, and origins.


Illustrated history of the beginnings, growth and influence of the commedia dell’ arte. Describes improvisations, staging, marks, scenarios, acting troupes, and origins.

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The Italian Comedy

The Improvisation Scenarios Lives Attributes Portraits and Masks of the Illustrious Characters of the Commedia dell' Arte

By Pierre Louis Duchartre, Randolph T. Weaver

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1966 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13852-7


The Commedia dell' Arte

HARLEQUIN and Columbine, Isabelle and Scaramouche, Pulcinella and Pantaloon, belong definitely to romance. Behind their names are heard the guitars of the Fêtes Galantes, the lingering echoes of shouts, applause, and robust laughter. Yet, as in a Watteau picture, the charm and gaiety of far-gone days die away on a minor key, for those who bore these names are long since dead, and with them all their joyous fantasy.

We are reminded of that bright, care-free company when, exploring some old bookshop, we come by chance upon a volume of Gherardi's Le Théâtre italien, or a stray print of Beltrame da Milano, of Harlequin, or of Riccoboni. The very contact with these relics gives us pause, and all at once the festive scenes of yester-year are evoked, the shadowy figures come alive, and we sense with a vague sharpness the distant glamour of pageantry and colour still vivid in the musty pages. But the illusion is too quickly lost, and we grow aware that these beauties of the past are asleep and beyond our reach, awaiting a new Molière or else some Charlie Chaplin of the Latin race to reawaken them.

Harlequin, Punch, Columbine, and Pantaloon were, in their day, used again and again in many forms and guises, and often so badly that in the end the Italian comedy scarcely served for more than gross farces, which were sometimes amusing because they were so inept, but more often were simply tedious and vulgar. The consequence is that comparatively little is known now about the true Italian comedy, the commedia dell' arte of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century, that world of fantasy peopled with quaint characters, conventionalized but full of life, rare personalities given to antics as picturesque as the costumes they wore.

George Sand wrote:

The commedia dell' arte is not only a study of the grotesque and facetious, ... but also a portrayal of real characters traced from remote antiquity down to the present day, in an uninterrupted tradition of fantastic humour which is in essence quite serious and, one might almost say, even sad, like every satire which lays bare the spiritual poverty of mankind.

Pantaloon and Brighella are eternal verities dealt with by poets rather than by psychologists or pedants. Their origin is ancient, and they will live for ever. The ancestor of Pantaloon, and his son Harpagon, is Pappus, the lecherous old miser of the Atellanæ. Their descendants are still with us, for Lelio is the charming gigolo of modern days, Isabelle his lovely feminine counterpart. Harlequin has lost his nonsense, and has exchanged his motley for the frock-coat of an ambitious Government official. The crafty Brighella has left his native Bergamo and Pantaloon has deserted Venice, and we have only to look twice to see them in the passing crowd.

I must insist that this illustrious family is far from being extinct. In the matter of antiquity few members of the aristocracy can boast a longer line than Harlequin and Punch. The cradle of the family was the ancient city of Atella, in the Roman Campagna, and the gallery of ancestors shows, among others, Bucco and the sensual Maccus, whose lean figure and cowardly nature reappear in Pulcinella. Next there is the ogre Manducus, the Miles Gloriosus in the plays of Plautus, who is later metamorphosed into the swaggering Capitan, or Captain. And there is also Lamia the Ghoul, who is the worthy patron saint of all go-betweens and scheming mothers.

The Atellanœ were comedies and popular farces, parodies and political satires. Whatever the plot or argument of the piece, the rôles kept the same character, further emphasized by the famous mask, without which the more important Italian comedians rarely made their appearance until the end of the eighteenth century. The dialogue at Atella, and later at Rome, was for a long time improvised from a plot-outline, or scenario, decided upon in advance. The actor who found himself at a loss for words, or in any other predicament, usually resorted to slap-stick. Harlequin's bat was a ready reply when all cues failed. And if the farces were often lacking in propriety they possessed, on the other hand, the more essential quality of life, as is witnessed by the ancient bas-reliefs and frescoes. The players drew freely upon the life of the day for their material, making use of the customs and frailties of all classes. And their tight-fitting masks, unchanging and inseparable from a given rôle, seemed in the end to be the only true countenance of the wearer.

And these are the elements which go to make great art.

If we pass over to the sixteenth century in Italy we discover the famous commedia dell' arte existing alongside the regular or legitimate theatre. It had retained the principal characters of the Atellanœ, but as it grew it proceeded to develop new types of its own. Bologna, with its old university, contributed the Doctor, who was as foolish as he was pedantic. Venice, the city of merchants and adventurers, evolved Pantaloon and the Captain. The two Bergamos—the Auvergne of Italy—produced the sly booby, Harlequin, and the knave, Brighella.

Otherwise there was little change. "The scenario, which the actors consulted at the beginning of each scene, was posted in the wings." It appears, however, that Angelo Beolco (1502–42), better known as Il Ruzzante, stimulated the development of local types when he wrote a comedy in prose (presented in 1528) in which each character spoke a different dialect. Another actor, named Cecchi, won considerable renown by ridiculing popular prejudices in a play called Assinolo, supposed to be "perfectly new"and treating of "an incident recently befallen in Pisa, involving certain young students and certain ladies of the town."

The elements of interest in contemporary events which Beolco and Cecchi introduced provided a fresh point of departure for the Italian comedy. The subject-matter of the plays was no longer limited to slavish imitations of Plautus, Terence, and Boccaccio, and began to include more and more the various aspects of everyday life.

It was then that the celebrated characters of the commedia dell' arte came into being, created by a welding of humanism and direct observation. The new characters not only became heir to the traditions of the theatre of antiquity, tracing their descent from classic prototypes, but they possessed striking traits which stamped them with distinct personalities of their own. They had, for instance, their own manner of speaking and gesturing, their own peculiar intonations and dress, and they were individual even to their warts and moles. In short, they represented people not of the dead and forgotten past, but of living and growing cities like Venice and Bergamo. We have little exact information regarding the early period of the formation and evolution of these characters as we know them to-day, but the theory is tenable that both the actors and public must have co-operated to a great extent in perfecting and standardizing the different types.

From the middle of the sixteenth century onward there was a constant proliferation of characters which the famous troupes of the Gelosi, the Confidenti, and the Uniti eventually made popular everywhere. Milan produced Beltrame and Scapin, brothers of Brighella and Meneghino; Naples brought forth first Pulcinella and then Scaramouche and Tartaglia; to Rome are due Meo-Patacca, Marco-Pepe, and later Cassandrino; to Turin, Gianduja; and in Calabria appeared Coviello, of whom Callot made a charming engraving. In this way each town created a representative type which was its boast, and to which its jealous neighbours added a touch of caricature. And thus the various rôles became stylized.

With this impetus the commedia dell' arte entered upon a period of increased activity, for it was naturally destined to flourish in the soil of Italy, where "the theatre is so popular that most of the working men deprive themselves of food in order to have the wherewithal to go to the play," and almost everybody has a talent for pantomime.

It must be understood from the outset that the commedia dell' arte was, of course, a genre of theatre quite distinct from any other. In France it was called comédie à l'impromptu and also comédie improvisée, though it never received any very exact definition, as the reader will observe later on. The term commedia dell' arte signifies, according to Dr Michele Scherillo, a form of comedy which, "in distinction to the written comedies, was not, and could not be, performed except by professional actors"; while Maurice Sand spoke of it simply as being the "perfection among plays." In any case, the two viewpoints taken together constitute a fairly adequate definition.

There is no end to the list of names given to the characters of the commedia dell' arte in documents dating from the Renaissance to the time of Molière. Yet, after they have all been sorted over, we find a limited number of fundamental types to which each actor, each locality, and the customs of each period made a special contribution. These characters are Pulcinella, the Captain, two old men, Pantaloon and the Doctor, and the two Zanni, or valet-buffoons, Harlequin and Brighella, or Francatrippa, etc. All of them wore masks, which is a strong indication of their connexion with the theatre of antiquity. The troupes of the Italian comedy interpreted not only these fixed types, but also less comic and less conventional characters, the lovers.

Women appeared late in the Italian comedy. They did not wear a mask like the other players, but only a little black velvet loup to protect their beauty. Nor did they impersonate clearly defined characters, but played Inamoratas (Donna Innamorata), servants (fantesca), ingénues, mistresses, wantons, and matrons, as the occasion required. The Lovers were in the same category. They had a store of expressions, speeches, and general dialogue which were varied and coloured by the personality of each actor.

The composition of a troupe was, within certain limits, entirely a matter of expediency. It might contain ten actors or twice as many, according to the period and the place. The Captain might supplant Scaramouche; and Pulcinella, who was indispensable in Naples, might not be so anywhere else.

We have tried to trace the life and characteristics of this celebrated family, which, although having its origin in Italy, eventually held sway over all Europe, taking root in Spain, Holland, Germany, Austria, and especially in France. We have sought to summon up its scattered members, masquerading under different names, so that their worthy line may not be extinguished by oblivion, and that we may be able to recognize their legitimate descendants around us.

The first troupes of Italian players came to France during the reign of Charles IX, at the instance of Catherine de' Medici, of whom Brantôme wrote that "from her earliest years she took a keen delight in comedies, even those in which the Zanni and Pantaloon performed. During the performance she was wont to laugh until her sides ached, and in every way showed as much interest as anyone there."

The history of the Italian comedy in France is not unlike the incident in which Harlequin is driven out by the front door, only to steal in again through the window. Catherine de' Medici invited the Italian players to come to France, and Parliament, which was not only nationalistic but stubbornly prejudiced in favour of the Confrèresde la Passion, so harassed them that they were unable to remain. Henri III then invited the troupe known as the Gelosi to come to Paris; but they fared no better at the hands of Parliament than their predecessors. In the seventeenth century several of the celebrated troupes returned, this time with official recognition, but they presently had the misfortune to offend the prudish Mme de Maintenon, who, in 1697, forbade them to come within thirty leagues of Paris. She died at last; the French gave an "Ouf!" of relief—after the manner of Scaramouche, and the Italians re-entered the Palais Royal in triumph.

The Italian comedy had by this time begun to feel the effect of French influence, gradually becoming, as it were, entirely Gallicized. The troupes began to present "French comedies adapted for the Italian theatre," and soon the most prominent French authors, such as Mangin, Boisfranc, Brugière de Barante, and Losme de Monchesnay, were writing plays for them. There were also Regnard, and Dufresny, whose "serious and comic entertainments" were featured in Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes, just as the famous Turcaret of Lesage was derived from the "duped merchant" created by Nolant de Fatouville, another of the group. Then came Marivaux, whose art gave a new distinction to Isabelle, Columbine, and Aurelio, and made them more engaging and more complex. Beneath his touch they gained in subtlety and delicacy, and, without losing any of their original vividness, took on the tone and colours of the eighteenth century. The French theatre, both at the great Paris fairs and later at the Opéra-Comique, absorbed the Italian types entirely. Yet they lived on none the less as Jonah is said to have lived inside the whale—very much at his ease.

Meanwhile in Italy the traditions of the commedia dell' arte were for three centuries transmitted wholly intact in certain of the most representative troupes. One of these, which was directed by Sacchi, played from scenarios written by Carlo Gozzi, the bitter rival of the over-productive Goldoni. In France the same conditions did not so easily obtain, owing to the steady pressure of new influences in a foreign land. But the popularity of the troupes was fully as great as in Italy, and this was remarkable considering that the players did not begin to employ the language of their audiences until 1668.

Indeed, there is no explaining the immense vitality of the Italian comedy except by the fact that these improvisators possessed the genius and mastery of their art to a degree rarely equalled in the history of the theatre.

Sorel wrote:

Because they make a strong point of gesture and represent many things through action, even those who do not understand their language cannot fail to understand the subject of the piece; for which reason there are many people in Paris who take pleasure in their playing.

It is evident that the Italians brought into France a fresh element of sparkle, exuberance, and salient expression at a time when the French theatre was wasting away in vain subtleties, insipid emotions, and ticklish points of honour, as inflated as bladders and quite as empty.

From the fifteenth century to the period of the Scudérys and after, not to mention Ponthus de Tyard, who set sail in a ship of dreams for the haven of Sweet Nothings, a whole branch of French literature and drama was infected by a persistent preciosity; and this preciousness, or excess of refinement, tainted even the virile Ronsard. However, the Italians, with their absurd and delightful stylized costumes, introduced a wealth of colour and atmosphere of fantasy which even French painting had long since lost.

Furthermore, the Italians revealed to the French the advantages of increased movement on the stage, inculcated a taste for music in the theatre which, together with elaborate costumes, served as an evocative aid to fantasy, and, lastly, encouraged a cult of the voluptuous, beribboned woman which was almost unknown in France before the eighteenth century. Even in the purely comic field the Italians provided something new, as Brantôme points out:

The comedy such as they played was rare in France, for before that time it was customary to speak only of farceurs, the Conards of Rouen, the Players of the Basoche, and other merry-andrews of the same kidney.

The jovial and crude naturalism of the art of the Italians, in contrast to the French theatre, which inclined rather more to reason and logic, oftentimes seemed intolerably vulgar to many contemporaries, but the immense success of Arlequin Empereur dans la Lune went far toward modifying this prejudice, and even induced women to attend the performances. There was, moreover, ample choice for all tastes in the Italian and Franco-Italian repertory, which ran the gamut from coarse farces to mordant philosophic satires, and from the popular parade to the most long-winded declamation—all sometimes combined in a single play.


Excerpted from The Italian Comedy by Pierre Louis Duchartre, Randolph T. Weaver. Copyright © 1966 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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